"is content less teachable than style?"
September 14, 2010 4:35 PM   Subscribe

In the final pages of his book, drawing up the merits of programme writing, McGurl ultimately falls back on the one thing the programme really does teach: technique. Countering Eliot’s dictum that ‘art never improves,’ he proposes that literature might, rather, resemble technology or sport, in which ‘systematic investments of capital over time have produced a continual elevation of performance.’ Hasn’t ‘the tremendous expansion of the literary talent pool’ and its systematic training in the ‘self-conscious attention to craft’ resulted in ‘a system-wide rise in the excellence of American literature in the postwar period’? It has. If you take ‘good writing’ as a matter of lucidity, striking word combinations, evocative descriptions, inventive metaphors, smooth transitions and avoidance of word repetition, the level of American writing has skyrocketed in the postwar years. In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.
Get a Real Degree by Elif Batuman is a critique of creative writing workshops and a review of Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. Louis Menand wrote a review of the same in The New Yorker which was both more appreciative of the book and creative writing programs. It was discussed previously on MetaFilter.
posted by Kattullus (28 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust.

In other technical news, Stendhal wrote La Chartreuse de Parme in 53 days. So let's not get ahead of ourselves here, eh?
posted by Wolof at 5:10 PM on September 14, 2010 [4 favorites]

Literary scholarship may not be an undiluted joy to its readers

In much the same way that passing a kidney stone is not without its discomforts.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:14 PM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh hell. This is right from my backyard. Or even closer, my alma mater. This is Iowa Writer's Workshop stuff. I'm going to have to deal with this. There was always a rivalry between my department and theirs.

I haven't read it myself, but it was the talk of the town, that when Vonnegut wrote his memoirs, he described his time at the Workshop as a continual struggle to avoid committing suicide. And he said there were only two things to do here: write and drink. After skimming these articles briefly, I don't see much that goes beyond these observations. But I will examine it at more length.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:20 PM on September 14, 2010

Trained seals are amusing, but wild seals are amazing.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:27 PM on September 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

I took a short story writing course in my senior year of college. From that experience, I can say that workshops won't create genius, but they can polish anything from a genius to a turd.

Several of my classmates were absolutely appalling writers at the beginning of the semester, but by the end of it they were producing quite enjoyable genre fiction. The only person who didn't improve was a guy who barely managed to write anything, but thought everyone else's writing was pretty sucky. I suspect it was because he thought his own writing was pretty sucky too.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:45 PM on September 14, 2010

Vonnegut ... said there were only two things to do here: write and drink.

I just heard an anecdote yesterday from someone who had to deal with Vonnegut on tour, and that is apparently his opinion about the entire universe.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 5:47 PM on September 14, 2010 [10 favorites]

It's interesting that Batuman takes McGurl to task for not being historically grounded when it comes to discussing narrative techniques and developments. It's kind of how I feel when parsing Batuman's extrapolation on the problems of contemporary fiction, in that he only highlights the known entities who fit the mold of his critique. He then admits of the difficulties in choosing any one new book these days because there are just so damn many being published, but proceeds with the assumption that they must be mediocre, or not nearly as fulfilling as the classics.

He and I are clearly not drawing our sustenance from the same well.
posted by Hesychia at 6:07 PM on September 14, 2010

She mentions some contemporary work that she likes, but contrasts it to the MFA-driven stuff (admittedly a vague category) that she doesn't.

Her conceit (or maybe it is McGurl's) that MFA programs are driving un-oppressed people to write contrived stories of oppression, though, seems a little forced to me. Surely there are just as many novels coming out of MFA programs about the not-very-dire problems of middle-class American professorial types in late middle age as there are novels written in imaginary Vietnamese thought language.
posted by enn at 6:30 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

*note to self: GIS before defaulting to genders with essays whose authors I am unfamiliar with...
posted by Hesychia at 6:37 PM on September 14, 2010

Well, thanks. This makes me really happy that I dropped my short-story writing class this semester.

(I looked over the reading list and the term that came to mind was 'misery porn.' I bailed immediately.)
posted by MrVisible at 6:40 PM on September 14, 2010

/holds MFA degree to chest and cries
posted by angrycat at 6:53 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you guys ever read ancient Egyptian stories? They were the worst. Laughably bad. I don't know whether improvement has occurred systematically over time, but it's certainly occurred since Wenamun's time.
posted by Jpfed at 7:05 PM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Does anybody think that content is teachable at all? I am not a pro, but I presume that with enough practice my style will eventually be fine. I have no such delusion regarding the value of my content. At my level of innocence, I think the surest way to get content is to go out and live an interesting life and pay attention and take a lot of notes. And by surest way, I mean there is a remote possibility of it actually ever happening.
posted by bukvich at 7:09 PM on September 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

So maybe I'm completely ignorant, but "programme writing" is contemporary writing by white people? or, all modern MFA writing is by white people? or the authors of these essays only read things written by white people? This essay talks more about whiteness than a sociology paper.

The continual production of ‘more excellent fiction … than anyone has time to read’ is the essence of the problem. That’s the torture of walking into a bookshop these days: it’s not that you think the books will all be terrible; it’s that you know they’ll all have a certain degree of competent workmanship, that most will have about three genuinely beautiful or interesting sentences and no really bad ones, that many will have at least one convincing, well-observed character, and that nearly all will be bound up in a story that you can’t bring yourself to care about. All that great writing, trapped in mediocre books! Who, indeed, has time to read them?

Very well said.
posted by fuq at 7:14 PM on September 14, 2010

I like Elif Batuman. Want to read her book at some point. Here is a related piece from her, on the state of the short story (plenty of stuff about the writing programs, obviously):
“New American fiction” is, to my mind, immediately and unhappily equivalent to new American short fiction. And yet I think the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus: by the big magazines, which, if they print fiction at all, sandwich one short story per issue between features and reviews; and by workshop-based creative writing programs and their attendant literary journals. Today’s short stories all seem to bear an invisible check mark, the ghastly imprimatur of the fiction factory; the very sentences are animated by some kind of vegetable consciousness: “I worked for Kristin,” they seem to say, or “Jeff thought I was fucking hilarious.” Meanwhile, the ghosts of deleted paragraphs rattle their chains from the margins.
. . .
Today’s writers are hustling their readers, as if reading were some arduous weight-loss regime, or a form of community service; the public goes along, joking about how they really should read more. Oprah uses identical rhetoric to advocate reading and fitness; Martha Nussbaum touts literature as an exercise regime for compassion. Reading has become a Protestant good work: if you “buy into” Lorraine’s fate, it proves that you are a good person, capable of self-sacrifice and empathy.
posted by grobstein at 7:16 PM on September 14, 2010

I think the surest way to get content is to go out and live an interesting life and pay attention and take a lot of notes.

The surest way to get content is to start writing. The more you write, the more content you'll have, and the more you have, the more you can throw away. The more you throw away, the better the stuff you keep will be.

You can lead the most interesting life in history, but if you don't write, you won't have any content.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 7:28 PM on September 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Some random thoughts, speaking as someone who usually inhabits the nineteenth century:

1. On a minor level, Batuman might have mentioned the emergence of CW doctorates--all four of my CW colleagues have them. What, if anything, should we make of that? And "the fact is that literary historians don’t write about creative writing" will very likely come as news to D. G. Myers, a literary historian whose study precedes this one by about fifteen years.

2. It seems that both Batuman and McGurl are skipping cheerfully over the minor problem (actually, for their argument, it's a major problem) of how Raymond Carver's style came to be.

3. Batuman dislikes all contemporary American novelists except, maybe, Joyce Carol Oates? Really? (Disclosure: I loved Oates as an undergraduate, but my patience with her has ebbed as I've grown older.)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:38 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

"In technical terms, pretty much any MFA graduate leaves Stendhal in the dust. On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read. "

This is such a wierd thing to say. Stendahl? Really? He wouldn't be my first pick for "consummate literary technician," but he spent a lot of time -- a hell of a lot of time -- trying to figure out what makes a novel work, and what a novelist was supposed to be doing.

Why not say Kerouac? There's a guy who probably could have spent more time editing, but who has a few books that I still actually want to read.
posted by bardic at 8:48 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Contemporary fiction seldom refers to any of the literary developments of the past 20, 50 or a hundred years. It rarely refers to other books at all.

Just one of dozens of sweeping generalizations & wrong assumptions. This article is bunk.
posted by muckster at 9:15 PM on September 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Okay, I went through these articles in as much detail as I could stand. This is the typical navel-gazing of analysts of novelism. And they entirely missed the point.

The Great American Novel is obsolete. These creative writing workshops are not for novelists, although they have cliques of novelism. There was one single literary work that changed the Iowa Writer's Workshop forever, and thus, all creative writing workshops. It was no Great American Novel, it was a piece of crass, potboiler genre literature, written for a fast buck. You will never believe what that book is.

Rambo: First Blood.

After that, the Great American Novel was obsolete. The new goal was the Great Hollywood Franchise with multiple sequels. IWW produced 16 Pulitzer Prizewinners? Worthless. A screen credit is the only game in town. Now the list of IWW credits includes other movies like The World According to Garp, Field of Dreams, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Emperor's Club, Chocolat, The Road to Perdition, Jarhead, The Seven Percent Solution, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, oh the list goes on and on. And the list keeps growing, soon my favorite IWW product will become a big budget flick, The Forever War.

Screenwriting is more formulaic than any other format. It has restrictive conventions that make a Great American Novel almost impossible to translate. So program writing is ideal for prospective screenwriters.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:24 PM on September 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

> how Raymond Carver's style came to be

I remember attending a reading by Gordon Lish some time after Carver died.

On the hand, Lish talked up his association with Carver a great deal (and the hype for the event invoked the latter's name), and on the other, he seemed a bit pissy and aggrieved. I had the distinct impression that there was Something Big Lish was believed to have done... that was somehow never referenced, and Not to Be Referenced, at the event.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:35 PM on September 14, 2010

That first piece is rich, provocative stuff, Kattallus. Thanks.
posted by mediareport at 9:38 PM on September 14, 2010

Nothing that is new is any good.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 6:33 AM on September 15, 2010

We all learned language without "teaching"... to the extent that we were able, through emulation. Similarly we can learn content through exposure. So I might ask *should* content be taught?

Second thought: so far as I know, the content of Finnegans Wake is invented, not emulated. But the audience drops quickly when we leave familiar pathways behind. We can be guided to discover standard plots and tension-and-relief and other devices of our genre of choice. I'd be suspicious of anyone claiming to offer much more than that.
posted by Twang at 7:04 AM on September 15, 2010

I have printed the article to read tonight but just wanted to say that McGurl's book is fantastic. Don't let your disagreements with reviewer stop you from reading the reviewed.
posted by jmccw at 10:53 AM on September 15, 2010

I have a Creative Writing Degree, and I can say that it was a great way to learn the craft of writing as well as the discipline (research, rewriting, etc) you need to be a successful writer, but, at the end of the day, it's very strange degree to get. For one thing, it's difficult to get published. And if you do get published you can't earn a living as a short story writer or novelist. Of course, in the 15 years since I got my degree, publishing has basically imploded.

As well, fiction all reads the same these days, probably thanks to MFA programs cranking out writers who are all trained in one particular way.

I used to read the New Yorker for the short stories, now, it's the non-fiction that I find most interesting.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:54 PM on September 15, 2010

See, I'd argue that publishing has exploded. And I don't know how anyone could possibly say that "fiction all reads the same these days" (Batuman also suggests this.) Have you read all of it? In what way is Freedom like Inherent Vice like A Visit from the Goon Squad like Bad Marie?
posted by muckster at 8:19 AM on September 16, 2010

Excerpts from responses to Batuman's essay, starting with Mark McGurl:
I’m not sure what motivates Batuman’s fixation upon the question of priority, since it doesn’t have much to do with the concerns of the book she is reviewing. To me it comes off as a reflex of the cultural conservative imagination, in which priority is confused with superiority, and thus can be used as an all-purpose snark generator. When it is cranking, no explanation is even needed for why one would want to use ones limited time to read Stendhal instead of a more recent writer like, say, Philip Roth, who in fact has written seven—okay five, or at least three—novels more rewarding in every respect than The Red and the Black other than the amount of cultural capital they confer upon their readers. Is cultural capital what Batuman is really after? So it appears in her weird and embarrassing bouts of Masterpiece Theater pomposity. Not that I have anything against reading Stendhal, mind you—and neither I assume would Roth. Stendhal has an important place in the history of the novel, and one can imagine critical contexts in which it would be interesting to see Roth’s young male protagonists as descendants, of a sort, of Julien Sorel. But I’m pretty sure that if your goal is to understand postwar American fiction Roth should be higher on your reading list than Stendhal.

So it’s not surprising that Batuman gets my argument about Ken Kesey completely wrong. Far from doing my best to make Kesey “seem as groundbreaking as he thought he was,” my goal in that chapter is to demonstrate that this famously “countercultural” enemy of institutions was a thoroughly institutionalized (and to that extent, “unoriginal”) writer, as he reveals when he says (in part of a letter fishily omitted by Batuman in her own quotation of it) that “I’m beginning to agree with [my teacher] Stegner, that [point of view] is truly the most important problem in writing.” Thus I document his participation in a larger methodical exploration of narrative form that, on the scholarly side of the department, would eventually see critics using terms like “intradiegetic-homodiegetic narration” with a straight face. (Whether this term is accurately applied to what Kesey is talking about in this letter I’m not so sure, since at this point he seems to have been trying to imagine a narrator who could be a “character” in the novel and yet somehow not be embodied in its fictional world, that is, an intradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrator. The narrator Kesey ended up with does “speak as I” and crucially does “take part in the action”.)

In some ways more serious than these errors of comprehension of my book is Batuman’s evidently modest knowledge of the structure of writing programs, which would be fine if it weren’t made the basis of a stream of gratuitous insults to those who attend and teach in them. With her skill at using the internet, she could have quickly learned that most writing programs require students to take several academic literature classes along with their workshops, and the work of novelists like John Barth, whom I treat at some length, as well as Robert Coover, Charles Johnson, Michael Cunningham, and many others is as intimately conversant with literary history as one could possibly wish. My experience of our colleagues who live on Planet MFA has been that they are in general exceptionally well-read in their chosen genres, though the language they use to talk about their reading tends to be different from (and for the vast majority of the populace, infinitely preferable to) that heard on Planet PhD.
- From his personal website.

Does School Kill Writing? by Bill Moore in The Millions:
Elif Batuman adds in her essay: “In technical terms, pretty much any MFA grad leaves Stendahl in the dust.  On the other hand, The Red and the Black is a book I actually want to read.”

As if to prove their point, last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carried a review of a slim new novel called All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang.  It’s a story, according to the review, of the paths followed by “two budding poets” who come together at “a prestigious unnamed writing school in the Midwest.”  Chang, the reviewer notes, is a 1993 graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been its director since 2006; she has received fellowships from Stanford, Princeton and Radcliffe; and her new novel poses “provocative” questions: “What is the relationship between talent and craft, genius and mediocrity?  Can writing be taught?  Does anyone ever improve?  Yet the central characters in All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost are neither mad enough, wise enough nor even, so it seems, well-read enough, to dare answer them.”
On Blowing My Load: Thoughts From Inside the MFA Ponzi Scheme by Anelise Chen in The Rumpus:
Elif Batuman reignites the debate in her new article “Get a Real Degree,” by paying special attention to McGurl’s argument that one of the faults of MFA Programs is that it has helped teach technique so well and made so many good writers that we simply can’t read them all. It’s not that the Program has made us worst writers, it’s that it’s made us so good it’s impossible to tell who is bad anymore. Higher education is the great equalizer; but apparently this isn’t the the goal with art.
What’s an MFA Got to Do with It? A Response to Elif Batuman by Lincoln Michel in The Faster Times:
I think reviewers, editors and writers (both MFA and non) focus too much on technical competence and not enough on what actually makes literature exciting. When we look at the greatest writers in history, it is often their flaws and eccentricities that make them so exciting and original. A story like Kafka’s “The Judgment” might violate a dozen workshop mantras, but there are few stories as powerful as it in Western literature.

And yet, does an MFA program truly crush out a writer’s eccentricities? I find it hard to think an original writer—see again David Foster Wallace and company—will really allow themselves to be dulled down in this way. By the end of the essay, even Batuman doesn’t seem to think so[.]
Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl by Andrew Seal in Blographia Literaria:
Even if Batuman apparently doesn't pay attention to the products of workshop fiction, she knows who likes it: White People. As a running gag, she notes when things which are associated or tangentially connected to writing programs appear in the coffee-table book Stuff White People Like: "Stuff White People Like #44: ‘Public Radio’… #116: ‘Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore.’"She makes some excellent points about the racial dimensions of the authority to speak through an Other, but her reliance on the Stuff White People Like line to drive her point home is more than a little lazy and actually undercuts any serious examination of why "white people" find things like "Being an Expert on Your Culture" so appealing and why program fiction is so successful at supplying it. Batuman shorthands it by saying that it's due to "the loss of cultural capital associated with whiteness, and the attempts of White People to compensate for this loss by displaying knowledge of non-white cultures," but it should be quite obvious that not liking workshop fiction—or any of the things which appear in the Stuff White People Like book—makes no one any the less "white," even in the very limited sense of 'bourgie-quasi-hipster.' Preferring Dunkin Donuts to Starbucks or James Patterson to Toni Morrison makes no white person any the less part of the system of reproducing white privilege. The reasons why William Styron could write a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ventriloquizing a black man go well beyond the coffee table.

(Additionally, Batuman's essay reveals more than a little deficit in self-consciousness about who the "white people" in the book are; surely a comment like, "I think of myself as someone who prefers novels and stories to non-fiction; yet, for human interest, skilful storytelling, humour, and insightful reflection on the historical moment, I find the average episode of This American Life to be 99 per cent more reliable than the average new American work of literary fiction" could feature as a highlighted exhibit in the kind of taste that the Stuff White People Like book skewers.)
posted by Kattullus at 9:54 PM on October 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older Gulf Cooooooooooooooon!   |   Ghost Writer Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments